SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's two Republican senators supported the confirmation Thursday of President Donald Trump's controversial choice to head the Department of the Interior.
The Senate voted 56-41, largely along party lines, to confirm David Bernhardt as Interior secretary despite lingering concerns about offshore drilling and conflicts of interest. Two Democrats crossed the aisle to vote with the GOP majority.
Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney voted to confirm Bernhardt.
Romney said he recently met with Bernhardt to discuss a wide range of issues impacting Utah, including the need for greater state and local involvement in public lands issues.
"Based on our discussion and his years of experience managing federal lands, I believe he has a solid understanding of issues affecting Utah and Western states. I will support his confirmation and look forward to working with the Department of the Interior to ensure that Utah has a voice in public lands decisions," the Utah Republican said in a statement before the vote.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, applauded Bernhardt's confirmation, saying he is uniquely qualified to lead the department and continue reforms to improve land management, limit prior executive abuse, expand conservation and advance greater access to public lands.
"After decades of mismanagement and regulatory abuse, the Department of the Interior and the communities impacted by its decisions will greatly benefit with David Bernhardt at the top," he said in a statement.
A lawyer and former energy industry lobbyist, Bernhardt was named as acting secretary of the Interior Department after former Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke resigned. Bernhardt has worked for the department since 2001 and served as the department's solicitor from 2006 to 2009.
Environmental groups condemned the confirmation.
"If this was the Department of Oil and Gas Drilling, David Bernhardt would be the perfect candidate for the job," Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.
"But as deputy Interior secretary, Bernhardt proved over and over again that he will always put his former clients’ wishes ahead of the needs of America’s public lands."
Earlier this month, several Democratic senators asked the deputy inspector general to investigate the suppression of a Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion on harm to wildlife caused by pesticides.
"Bernhardt will be even worse than Ryan Zinke. He’s the perfect distillation of Trump’s contempt for the natural world,” Kierán Suckling, executive director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune called Bernhardt a "walking conflict of interest" who is selling out public lands to his former clients in the fossil fuel industry.
"We will not back down in our efforts to hold Bernhardt accountable for his abuse of ethical norms and his dangerous, pro-polluter agenda," he said.